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April 16, 2008

American Studies Celebrates Philip Roth at 75 in Miller Theatre
Special from The Record

For Philip Roth, three quarters of a century goes by like the blink of an eye. “Seventy five, how sudden,” he said as he celebrated his 75th birthday at Miller Theatre on April 11. The event was co-sponsored by Columbia University's American Studies Program and the Library of America.

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Philip Roth speaks at Miller Theatre, after being introduced by Hermione Lee, the Goldsmiths' Chair in English at Oxford University.

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Hundreds of people attended the event, lining up outside Miller Theatre two hours befor the symposium began. When the 688-seat theater filled to capacity, scores headed to the Columbia Law School to watch the panel on closed-circuit television, occasionally catching glimpses of the guest of honor as he sat in the front row, listening intently, his hands clasped in front of him.

Roth’s “astonishing career redrew the map of American literature in the 20th century and continues to do so in the 21st,” said Max Rudin, publisher of the Library of America, as he opened the event. The Library of America is issuing the definitive edition of the author’s works.

The conference was the brainchild of Ross Posnock, professor of English, who read excerpts from Roth's 1986 book The Counter Life and said that Roth's voice was as "indelible as Hemingway's or Faulkners." Most authors do their best work when they are younger and then fade away, he said, but not Roth, whose "creative renewal is unprecedented in the late 20 century."

In the evening’s first panel, author Judith Thurman moderated a discussion with three novelists—Nathan Englander, Jonathan Lethem and Charles D’Ambrosio–exploring Roth’s impact.

All three recalled digging their first Roth books out of their parents’ bookshelves as teenagers. For D’Ambrosio and Englander, that book was Portnoy’s Complaint, the 1969 novel about a Jewish man discussing sexual desire and sexual frustration with his therapist, which rocketed Roth to fame. “It was shocking to me that my parents would have anything to do with anything that is interesting,” D’Ambrosio recalled.

The panel moved on to discussing Roth’s mastery of the craft and what it is that makes his writing so powerful. “There’s no distance in the voice,” Englander said. “You … feel like the books are written for you.”

Lethem, discussing Roth’s sentences, compared him to a painter with “absolute faith” in his materials. But he attributed the power of Roth’s novels in part to his willingness to engage with difficult issues, while “refusing to be self-exiling.”

“He is the necessary American writer who refused to leave the room,” Lethem said. “He’s the writer who was always going to live in the world I was in.”

Distinguished scholars comprised the second panel, all of whom had been asked to select one of Roth’s 28 books to discuss.

Hermione Lee, chair of English Literature at Oxford University, singled out  The Ghost Writer (1979), a novel about the young writer Nathan Zuckerman’s first encounter with the legendary but fictional author E.I. Lonoff. (The three authors on the first panel also singled out that book repeatedly for praise.)

“I have a special admiration for the perfectly crafted and formed,” she said, comparing the book with short works by Turgenev, Tolstoy and James. “Every tiny detail of phrasing has its right place in this book.”

But the highlight for many was the brief speech from the author himself, who ascended to the stage amid thunderous applause. 

“Time runs at a terrifying speed,” he said, commenting on reaching 75. “It seems as though it was just 1943, the war was on, and I was 10.”

Roth recalled writing his first story that year: “Storm off Hatteras” (written under the pen name Eric Duncan). Then he recalled the play he co-wrote and performed with classmates upon graduating from public elementary school. Titled “Let Freedom Reign,” it plotted “tolerance,” played by a classmate, against “prejudice,” played by Roth. At the end of the play, tolerance wins the day, and prejudice skulks away, exiting stage left.

“It’s not such a stretch to say [that] that 12-year-old gave birth to the man of today,” he said. “That was the beginning, the start of the trail that leads up to today. Let’s do this again in 25 years. It will be here before we know it.”

— Story by Adam Piore